All aspects of the hearing process need to be planned carefully, and well in advance: scheduling, venues, timeframes, responsibilities, recording, reporting, and resourcing.
The appropriate use of independent commissioners should be identified at an early stage - for example in matters of perceived conflicts of interest, such as council designations. However, the delegation of decision-making powers in relation to plans is subject to the restrictions under s34 of the RMA.
Sections 41A-41C of the RMA clarifies the powers for decision-makers when conducting hearings. These powers can be exercised if the scale and significance of the hearing makes the exercise of the power appropriate. These powers include directing submitters and applicants to provide their evidence within time limits.
Section 41C provides the decision-making authority with powers to give directions and make requests before or at hearings. Directions can be given regarding the order of business and how evidence is presented. The authority can also direct the applicant or a submitter to present evidence within certain timeframes and submissions can be struck out. Further information can be provided via a commissioned report.
The hearing forum can be unfriendly and intimidating for submitters, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the process. Make it as least intimidating as possible, for instance by:
providing a level 'roundtable' environment;
having someone meet and greet submitters, a friendly face who can answer questions and provide direction on the process; and
sending submitters leaflets prior to the hearing, outlining the process. The MFE Everyday Guide Appearing at a Council Plan or Plan Change Hearing would be appropriate.
Everyone with responsibilities in hearings should have a clear understanding of their role - councillors, commissioners, planners, other reporting officers, and committee clerks. The chairpersons should outline the procedures and process before each hearing: for example, role of reporting officers versus decision-makers.
As with all hearings, decision-makers must be, and must be seen to be, impartial. For example, to avoid perceptions of, or opportunities for, informal persuasion or influence, decision-makers usually need to be kept separate from submitters during hearings (for example, during morning tea). Separation between hearing panels and reporting officers is also preferable. The level of separation, however, will need to be judged on a case-by-case basis.
Organising hearings is a time consuming process. For large numbers of submissions, it is preferable to organise hearings in stages. Confirm the schedule close to the date, so submitters can finalise their attendance and indicate how much time they require. Phone submitters just prior to the hearing, either to ensure attendance or to reschedule as required. Also identify available resources to help them present their submission. Have someone available to contact submitters during hearings, if need be. Tip: Have submitters' contact numbers at the hearing to facilitate follow-up if there are delays in the hearing.
For the hearing programme, group submitters with short time requirements in 'blocks' rather than individually, so if a submitter does not turn up, the committee can hear the next one immediately and not have to wait for the time that was allocated for that submitter.
Keeping records of hearings is an important part of section 32 obligations. Section 41C(b)(i) allows the authorities to direct that evidence and submissions be recorded. Some local authorities tape all hearings, but only transcribe tapes if needed. Best practice is to ensure that a record is kept of the written submissions and that a written record of any associated verbal dialogue is prepared - for example, interpolation of submissions and responses to questions.